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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 17


  Mair takes John’s elbows, pulling them closer. Sorrow and pity twist into something like love again, or the echo of it. “I’m sorry, John. My memories are all a scramble too.”

  The muscles of his jaw shift. “You always calmed me. You and that hearth in your house. When my nightmares were too much, when I was remembering too much, all I wanted was to go back into the forest. My dreams told me only the Bone Tree could soothe me, make all this end. It was so terrible that first night after I ran, Mairwen. Only you calmed me. Anytime I decided the only thing to do was walk back inside, I could think of you, or hold your hand and . . . I could stay.”

  “John,” she whispers. “I hear it. The forest. It’s always called me.”

  “I want to leave the valley,” John says.

  “What!”

  “I think Vaughn will give me the means, as his family has for all the—all the survivors. Maybe if I get far enough away the call will lose strength. Maybe I can sleep again.”

  “I don’t think it will, John. But maybe I can help you. I—”

  “You are not enough for me to stay. And I cannot—cannot!—remain while the devil that haunts my every moment lives and walks in this valley.”

  “Tell me what else you remember, John, and maybe I can put all the pieces together.”

  “Mairwen,” he says. That’s all.

  She holds his gaze, memorizing the feathered lines at the corners of his eyes, the wisps of pale-blond hair falling out of the tail to frame his temples and tickle his jaw.

  “I don’t want to always be alone,” he finally adds. “I have to go.”

  Lifting her wrist, she puts the bracelet between them, the delicate underside of her arm lifted to the sky. “John,” she whispers. “Do you see this strange bone?”

  It is shaped like a pebble, with five rounded corners, and white as the moon.

  “I see it,” he breathes.

  “It is a bone from your hand.”

  John reels back, stumbling.

  She reaches out, grabs at him, but he shies away.

  “John, listen!” Mairwen speaks fast. “Baeddan has all of them, all the bones from your hand, sewn into the flesh of his chest, over his heart, binding you to him and to the forest—it was the most power from you he could take without keeping you, and why the bargain only lasted this long! Because your hand was powerful, but not powerful enough a sacrifice to burn for the whole seven years. Now the bargain is only held by my willpower, my little charm! It won’t last even a season. Tell me what you remember, so we can understand what the bargain needs. So we can keep everyone safe. Even you.”

  He shakes his head, backing away, heels knocking pebbles and tufts of grass so he seems to trip and move like a gangly scarecrow brought to life. “I thought my hand would be on the tree.”

  “The Bone Tree?”

  “Yes. It was covered in bones. Don’t you remember that at least? It was the center of all my dreams, that wretched tree. Strung with skulls, rib cages, femurs, and vertebrae knotted together like a baby’s mobile. And the altar among the huge white roots, embedded there snug and sound.”

  Mairwen nods slowly, remembering the skulls.

  “The devil laughed as he tried to drag me to it, Mairwen. Baeddan Sayer laughing and singing a song I knew. My mother used to . . . and I—I thought to sing with him. He was so delighted I knew his song that he dropped me and I ran for the light.”

  “I won’t let him near you,” Mairwen says. She must convince him to stay. Whatever John thinks, Mairwen is the only thing keeping him out of the forest now. “I swear, John Upjohn, Baeddan Sayer will not bother you. I’m going to drag his memories out of him, too, and figure this out. Please stay. At least for a few days.”

  John is terrified; it’s obvious in his tight eyes, the pull of his mouth. The tension in the leather pocket where he’s shoved his stumped arm too hard. “A few days,” he whispers.

  “I swear I will find you answers,” she says, leaning near enough to touch her forehead to his shoulder, and her mouth is near his collar, where on her own chest the thorns press up, hooking through her skin like sickles.

  • • •

  THE CREATURE WHO WAS AND occasionally still is Baeddan Sayer hears the Grace witch leave her cottage. Like a puppy after a favorite ball, he pushes up and follows her outside, but instead of heading behind her to the shambles, his gaze turns southwest, toward Three Graces.

  The whisper of the forest is a chittering in his ears, or in his mind, or both. He crushes his eyes closed, thumps his fists against his temples. “Baeddan Sayer,” he says to himself, as clearly as she would. The name fills his chest, makes his tongue more human, and he takes a few halting steps toward town. “Baeddan Sayer,” he says again, straightening his spine.

  Along the sloping, grassy path he goes, called by the glinting white of cottages and smoke rising, rising, rising, against the too-bright sky. He can’t remember his mother’s face, though he knows he saw her, only a few hours ago. What was her name? Baeddan claws his chest, the pain sharpening his mind: Alis Sayer. Will she be in town, or up the mountain at the Sayer homestead? She spent most days with her sisters in town. Ha! Yes, he remembers that!

  Also, Baeddan is hungry. His teeth cut against his lips, and he tastes his own blood, just a trickle. The sun is so warm across his back, through the ripped leather of his jacket.

  And the Grace witch brought him out into it. Into the sun.

  He smiles, oh, he smiles, broad and terrifying, thinking of her wildness, the taste of her mouth and her blood, the hot press of her fingers on his face, on his wrists, her warmth in the circle of his arms as they danced among the bobbing lights of merry ignis fatuus.

  “You are no ghost or green girl,” he says wonderingly, leaping forward to grasp her face. To peer at her crackling brown eyes, the shattered curls about her ears, the bloody scratches crusting along her jaw. At her lips, narrow and pink, wanting to eat her, to bury his face in her neck and discover her tenderest flesh. She looks as delicious as Grace.

  “Release me!” she commands, and he does.

  Just like that, no struggle, no anger. He obeys her as the forest obeys him.

  “What are you?” Grace asks.

  “The devil,” he says.

  Her eyes narrow. She reaches haltingly for his chest, to touch the furrows of blood there, the ropes of scabbing, the hard root-scars grown over his wounds. He reaches to touch her, too, and she snatches her hand away. “No you’re not,” she says, firm and certain.

  Laughter drops from his mouth. “No I’m not!” he cries, gleeful.

  “What are you? You look like my friend.”

  “Is your friend the Three Graces saint? I saw the moon rise. I know the saint is here, running, running, running. I’ll find him, you know. Smell him out. They always smell like that. Like you, hmm.”

  Goose bumps lift along the girl’s arms. She says, “I came in here alone.”

  The devil leans nearer, nose to her temple. He draws a long breath, sliding down her neck. He’s so close his sharp antlers gently scrape her cheek. Did Grace come here alone? He doesn’t remember. Should he?

  “No,” she says, though not to any real question.

  “You’re Grace,” he replies, rumbling her name like a purr deep in his chest. She gasps. He can hear her heart beating off-kilter, and all around them the forest is a stage, full of eyes and hopes, making this moment into a dark spectacle.

  “I’m a witch,” she whispers. “What are you?”

  He touches the skin at her neck, just over her bodice sleeves. She stares with wide eyes, as if he’s as amazing a thing to her as she is to him. He skims fingers up her throat and to her jaw, and a hundred tiny shivers race down his spine and arms, tingling his palms. Her breath is cool as it breaks over him, musty and sweet, and he tilts her chin up.

  “A saint,” he says, and kisses her.

  It’s only a moment, lips on lips, but the devil tastes her heart.

  She wrenches away. ??
?Baeddan Sayer!” she cries.

  The creature pauses. He blinks. He puts the butts of his hands to his eyes and backs away. “My name,” he whispers.

  Wind hisses through the trees.

  “You’re Baeddan,” she says. “You’ve been here ten years. You were the saint then.”

  “No, the saint is mine,” he says, suddenly vicious, teeth bared. “I must find him and drag him to the Bone Tree! That is what I must do. Get my fingers around his bones. Not like his finger bones around my heart! Ha! Ha!”

  “Baeddan Sayer, no. Listen to me.”

  He digs his fingers into his chest, under the tiny bones. “Say my name again,” he pleads.

  “Baeddan.”

  Clawing his skin, he drags his hands down. “Baeddan,” he whispers.

  Baeddan lifts his head and stares up at the sun until tears burn in his eyes. He can still cry.

  He tries to recall the cadence of her heart, the rhythm of its song that was not the forest’s song. He should have followed the witch. Not Grace, but Mairwen. Another Grace. But here he is, creeping toward town carefully enough to be aware he’s trying not to be seen.

  His bare feet crunch through the dry grass, unattached to the pull of the forest, the magic that used to flow through him strongly enough to plant flowers in his wake, to curl vines up around his ankles if he stood still for too long, that drew the eyes of the trees, the roots, all of it stretching toward him. His forest. His heart and his forest.

  This land does not yearn for him. It is quiet, peaceful. He could stretch out and slumber as still as stone for years perhaps.

  Baeddan takes a very deep breath and sighs it out.

  The buildings of town are like boulders, he decides, slipping quietly around from the southeast to come upon them where there is no path. He easily climbs a yard wall, onto a side building, onto a thickly thatched roof, for he has not lost any of his unnatural strength.

  People move below him, though not too many, for it is early afternoon and many still recuperate from the long vigil. He hears them stirring in their beds, murmuring quietly to one another, some walking about from home to pub or the chapel. The sounds comfort him, like long-lost lullabies. He hums along.

  What did he used to be, he wonders, that this was all he needed?

  The Devil’s Forest is a shadow in the north, embracing the valley, calling him.

  Baeddan stands tall at the crest of this house he’s chosen, so the wind hits his sore chest and flaps the ends of his coat. The sun slithers through his hair, finding the antlers that circle his head, picking at the thorns grown from his collar, and transforming his mottled skin into something like a pearl, or unpolished amethyst, rough and beautiful.

  Here in the sun, between the village at his feet and in view of the wicked Bone Tree, so far away and yet threaded through his heart, Baeddan feels wild and raw. Why did he not bring Mairwen Grace with him here, to hold his hand, to promise him this home again?

  Spreading his arms, as if he is the embracing dark forest, as if he will hold Three Graces to his chest, protect it as he died to do, Baeddan whispers his name to himself.

  In the center of the village, young Bree Lewis stares up at the devil from the spiral of cobblestones, thinking he’s come on black wings, come to destroy them all now that he’s free. She screams.

  • • •

  RHUN WAKES WITHOUT FUSS. ONLY an opening of eyes.

  Arthur kissed him. In the forest. He remembers perfectly now.

  Something opens inside his chest, and Rhun thinks, I would have died for only that.

  There’s heat and comfort at his back.

  Slowly, it occurs to him that Arthur is stretched there, spine to spine; they lean together where the straw mattress sinks in the middle.

  He sits carefully, sliding off the foot of the low mattress, and kneels there looking down at loose, sleeping Arthur Couch. How he used to long for such ease between them.

  Arthur frowns, turning toward the warmth where Rhun’s body used to be.

  Rhun touches Arthur’s ankle and feels the strength seep through his fingers again. No doubt this magic has connected their health and power not only to the bargain, but to each other. And somehow, Arthur doesn’t seem to mind.

  The Grace cottage is quiet, sunlight pressing through the tiny loft window, diffused all throughout the room below him. He picks up his boots and creeps down the ladder. Haf Lewis dozes in a chair; Baeddan Sayer is vanished from the hearth. Rhun drinks down the dregs of a cup of cold tea before ducking into the rear bedroom. Mairwen’s ruined blue dress is in pieces on the floor, but Mair herself is gone.

  Rhun goes outside to put on his boots. The borrowed trousers are slightly too long, so he tucks them in and swings his tattered hunting jacket over the new shirt. He scrubs at his face and pulls all his huge hair back, irritated to not have anything with which to tie it. It’s a wild cloud against his shoulders. He pulls apart handfuls and braids them loosely. The texture and sweat and dried blood keep the strands stiffly woven when he lets go.

  Stomping out of the yard and up the first hill, Rhun takes stock of the valley: It all seems lovely and well. He should be filled with satisfaction, should be glad and awed because no matter what else, he ran into the Devil’s Forest four years before his time and survived.

  But there’s a secret at the heart of the bargain. A lie.

  Rhun hates both secrets and lies.

  “I should’ve set fire to the Bone Tree when I had the chance,” Arthur says quietly behind him.

  Rhun winces in the bright afternoon. “Maybe you tried and I didn’t let you.”

  “That sounds about right.” Arthur laughs.

  Sighing hard enough to shrug his shoulders, Rhun turns to his friend, who stands several steps away, slouched on one hip, scowling and chewing his bottom lip. Arthur looks ridiculous in the too-large shirt. But good.

  “We should go home and get our own clothes,” Rhun says.

  “I look so bad to you now?” Arthur spreads his arms out.

  Rhun stares at him, at the sharp lines of his cheeks, his neck, the way the shirt presses to his ribs on the windy side and flutters on the other, at his spiky hair and bright blue eyes, at his mouth. He feels it still, but from that long distance where all his desires and needs and hopes live. He remembers the fork in the forest path and choosing to go after Arthur. “I think I died after all,” he says, rough and simple.

  “My God, Rhun,” Arthur breathes. He closes the space between them and grasps Rhun’s shoulders, then his neck, thumbs pressed to Rhun’s jaw.

  “Get off him!” Rhun cries, tearing at Baeddan’s hair and coat, ripping him off the fallen Arthur. Baeddan growls, and Arthur goes wild, knife up, sneering, and lurches forward again—

  Rhun closes his eyes tightly, bowing his head, and Arthur puts his face nearer. “Rhun,” he says. “You didn’t die. You’re here, with us. With me. Stop being dramatic.”

  It makes Rhun snort helpless laughter. Arthur lets go.

  But there’s a shimmer of tears in Rhun’s eyes when he opens them. “I feel like it, though, Arthur. I feel lost. I should be telling Mairwen this. It’s the sort of thing I would confess to her, not you. I always wanted you to think I was impervious to—to hurt. To damage. I wanted you to think you couldn’t hurt me, no matter what, so you’d stay by my side.”

  Arthur hisses. “I’m such an ass. And a terrible friend.”

  He shakes his head. “I asked too much from you.”

  “No, never. You never did. It was just . . . love you wanted, Rhun. I thought giving it to you was weak, or made me weak at least. I’m the ass for holding it against you.”

  Rhun eyes Arthur, frowning. Why can’t he remember what happened to change Arthur? It couldn’t have merely been death. He’d give anything to remember. Rather remember Arthur than everything else that happened in the Devil’s Forest.

  The two young men—so much older today than yesterday—don’t realize for a long moment that their breathing
has aligned. Rhun lifts his right wrist, and Arthur mirrors him, until they hold the binding bracelets together, not quite touching but existing in the same tingling air, pressing warmth against each other. Wind shifts the golden grass around their ankles, murmuring along the rolling hills of the valley with the smell of smoke and clear winter ice. Arthur opens his hand and Rhun follows this time, and they put their palms together, sucking in air at the same time at the strange sensation dancing down their wrists along the lines of their veins.

  “It’s like a handfasting,” Arthur says, but the scorn does not reach his eyes. His gaze hooks into Rhun’s, and Rhun almost feels something. His breath hitches.

  “You kissed me in the forest,” Rhun whispers before he can stop himself.

  Arthur startles, frowning. “I don’t remember.”

  Despair is a thing Rhun never thought he’d become used to.

  “But I believe you,” Arthur continues ferociously. “I walked out of that forest alive, Rhun, and I feel that way. Alive. On fire. I’m not afraid of you anymore. I’m not afraid of anything.”

  “You weren’t afraid of me.”

  Arthur eyes him, incredulous. “I was afraid of what you were, and what I thought I was.”

  Rhun shrugs one shoulder, feeling dull. “You’ve always been on fire.”

  And then here comes Mairwen, hurrying toward them in an ugly gray and brown outfit. Rhun thinks there must be something symbolic about none of them in their own clothes, like everything they were before is so changed nothing fits. It’s Arthur who reaches his other hand to Mair, holding it out as she marches down the hill from the pasture, speeds up to skip and stumble, her own hand reaching until their fingers skim together. Rhun takes her other hand and reels back at the great clap of energy uniting them suddenly.

  Their hands grip tighter, and Mairwen gasps, grimacing as if in pain. Between their feet the grass sprouts green, feathering with new spring seeds.